by DON WHELAN
Many were saddened to hear that John Ritchie died on September 29, his 93rd birthday. He had been widely acknowledged as the “father of music” in Christchurch, and deeply involved for years as a Catholic composer and parish musician.
Born in Wellington, he grew up in Dunedin, where Vernon Griffiths, head of music at King Edward Technical College, recognised his talent. He was given a clarinet, inducted into the school orchestra, and encouraged to graduate in music at Otago University, and to train as a teacher.
He was a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm during World War II, and undertook
further musical studies in Britain and the United States. He was appointed junior lecturer in music at Canterbury in 1946, and retired as professor in 1985. He was deputy vice-chancellor from 1977 to 1980. In 1986, he was appointed Professor Emeritus, and awarded an honorary doctorate in 2000.
While a Dunedin student, Mr Ritchie had sung in the choir of the Anglo-Catholic All Saints Church ,“not with any great religious fervour”. His wife Anita was singing in St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral choir. Their conversion to Catholicism in 1953 was recollected by John in a 1997 interview with Philip Norman, when he asked “Why did you become a Catholic?”
He replied: “Some people thought at the time it was for the music. There was a kind of awed silence: ‘Oh the music in the Catholic Church, oh it’s wonderful.’Well, I’ve got news for them: The music in the Catholic Church hasn’t been wonderful for probably a century. It’s pretty mediocre in fact, and certainly wouldn’t have attracted me into the Church in 1953.
“The stuff the Catholics sing as hymns, well it shouldn’t be fed to a dog. It’s dreadful stuff. I’ve said it and I’ve made myself very unpopular with people, but it’s worse than the Methodist stuff the natives picked up last century. It’s now just a mixture of cheap pop music, the worst of pop music, and I feel very sorry about it. But I know the cause of it is that, like in other churches, the clergy have the last say, and if the clergy are totally ignorant in matters of music then you get trouble.
“The Catholic Church might have an infallible pope, but it has no infallibility when it comes to music.”
In the light of such criticism, it might have seemed tempting for a composer and musician to avoid religious composition, but not so.
In 1954, his most highly regarded choral work was published. Lord, When the Sense of Thy Sweet Grace is a passionate plea for mystical union with God, set to the words of Francis Thompson. It has been much recorded and performed internationally. A Kyrie and Gloria followed in 1964, and his published Mass No. 4 proved an economical parish setting reflecting his lengthy involvement as choirmaster at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Christchurch.
Richard Ellena, now Anglican Bishop of Nelson, recalls: “Every Sunday you conducted us as we sang your congregational settings, and I quickly came to realise how special your faith was to you, especially the Mass.” In 1986, he was musical director for the papal visit to Christchurch.
The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament Orchestra took his string orchestra prelude on the Irish tune Slane to Dublin’s pro-cathedral in 1989, and in 1997 he responded to my request for a new Mass to be taken around Europe during our millennium tour with the Missa Corpus Christi. Although liturgically sized, this beautiful craft work employs a full orchestra, and a wide range of emotional expression, always sensitive to the text. We repeat the work each year on the Feast of Corpus Christi. One of the last recorded mementos of our shattered cathedral is a Praise Be special, including the Mass, celebrated by Bishop John Cunneen, and an interview with the composer.
John Ritchie composed enduring works for many different media: a Concertino for Clarinet and Strings, Partita for Brass Quintet, Four Zhivago Songs, Suites for String Orchestra, Papanui Road Concert Overture, Wings of the Morning Cantata (for the RNZAF), and Threnody for Brass Band.
Of his five children, the best known in musical circles is Dr Anthony Ritchie, whose recent Symphony (recorded by Concert FM) is entirely based on our cathedral’s Stations of the Cross, now trapped in their desolate building.
As a person, John Ritchie was a delightful, genial host, an excellent storyteller, and a brilliant, encouraging teacher. His impish sense of humour ensured no offence could be taken at his views, which were consistently forthright and immediate. He was greatly loved, and will be dearly missed.
by DON WHELAN